Buddha by Karen Armstrong
by Karen Armstrong
ISBN: 9781407233710

As one of my goals this year is to learn more about Buddhism, it made sense to read this not quite traditional biography by noted religious scholar Karen Armstrong. As she points out in various places, there isn’t the evidence or proof that many contemporary academics rely on, but “we can be reasonably confident that Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.”

Armstrong divides the story of Buddha into six sections, always providing context for elements of his story, from the existing religions of his day, to the political realities, to forces shaping changes in society. Armstrong isn’t a Buddhist, so while she does have opinions, she doesn’t seem to be presenting the historical Buddha, or the content of his teachings, from a particular school’s point of view. She has a knack for summing up: “Religious knowledge in India had one criterion: did it work? Would it transform an individual, mitigate the pain of life, bring peace and hope of a final release? Nobody was interested in metaphysical doctrine for its own sake.”

She explores the likely path Siddhatta Gotama took from privileged prince to wandering monk to becoming “the Awakened one” and from there, to the extent possible, how he probably lived the rest of his life. She separates out probable embellishments (often offering explanation for how they likely came to be) from more probable reality. While he may have been an extraordinary person, the Buddha was always a human being, as Armstrong reminds us.

If you are interested in the Buddha as an historical figure, or are interested in knowing more about how Buddhism as a religion/philosophy/practice came to be, I recommend this book.

The Road Home

The Road Home by Ethan Nichtern A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path
by Ethan Nichtern
ISBN: 9780374251932

I have had an interest in Buddism and some Buddhist thinkers for awhile, though my interest has felt like a “from the sidelines” kind of thing. I’ve also had an on again, off again meditation practice which I’d like to keep on. I decided that this year I wanted to go deeper: to commit to daily mediation, to actively learn more about Buddhism, and see where more focused effort and attention might take me. So I picked up this book, and signed up for the author’s Finding Your Path course online via The Interdependence Project.

It seems to me that one of the things Nichtern means by contemporary approach is a willingness to broadly interpret (reinterpret?) translated texts. For example, the First Noble Truth is often reduced to (in English) “life is suffering”. He shares his “favorite phrasing of the first noble truth: It’s always ok to admit you are struggling.” His favorite phrasing, it seems to me, more easily opens the door to conversations about how we are, and how we might take action.

While his approach is accessible, it isn’t fast. Taking meditation as an example, he tells us that we should sit ten minutes a day for at least a year, even go on a retreat during that time, and only then start wondering about the results: “Meditation only works if we give it lots of time.” It isn’t that no benefits can accrue in less time, but that short term focus isn’t the point. Developing a steady, reliable, continual practice that will allow us to feel at home with ourselves is.

Nichtern leads the reader through an explanation of karma (more nuanced than pop culture reflects), the five precepts, “Buddha nature”, bodhicitta, spiritual bypassing, and types of student/teacher relationships in the first two sections of the book. The first half resonated more with me than the second half. Perhaps this is because, while interesting, I don’t find the question “is Buddhism a religion?” all that actionable; which is to say it informs the study of Buddhism but not the practices. (He is clear in his answer: no, Buddhism isn’t a religion.) It may also be because I found the explanations of visualization, and discussion of concepts like windhorse were, while important parts of his path, not presented in a way that seemed as universally applicable as earlier concepts. (This may be because they are more part of the Shambhala path, which is his tradition.)

One section later in the book, “The Culture of Awakening”, did hold my attention. It includes this paragraph, which I think serves as a good summation of why this path — the Buddhist, or Awake-ist path — is something he has devoted himself to:

Within every story we tell each other, within every ad we create, within every cultural text we produce, we are either disempowering people and reinforcing their experience of the three S’s of scared, selfish, and separate, or else empowering them to experience themselves as the three C’s of courageous, compassionate, and connected. Of course, as three S’s and the three C’s are interdependent with each other, our cultural stories are usually much more complex than a simple either/or, helpful/harmful dichotomy, which is why remembering the underlying basic goodness is so crucial.

So, should you read this book? If you are looking for a lot of information on the historical Buddha, or an explanation of different branches of Buddhism, you won’t find them here. If you are interested in a contemporary teacher’s take on the Buddhist path, you will probably find it interesting.


Critiqued by Christina Beard Inside the Minds of 23 Leaders in Design
by Christina Beard
ISBN: 9780321897411

This book grew from Beard’s thesis project. Her plan: meet with almost two dozen established and respected figures in the design world, learn about their process/perspective, and incorporate their feedback into the next iteration of her poster. As a result Beard made dozens of posters on her chose topic, hand washing.

The feedback and advice Beard was given led to dramatic changes in the poster over time, including several fresh starts. Beard’s format could seem too repetitive, but is saved by the curiosity — what will the next designer say about the poster? What bits of wisdom will we learn?

Some of the bits that stood out to me (in a good way) were:

Drawing has taught me the more you don’t know in your mind what you’re going to do, the more it comes out in your hand. You learn from looking, and look from making, and make from looking, and it’s all part of this ongoing process. – Jessica Helfand

Collaboration is tough to begin with because there are two forces are at odds with the process itself. One is of level of politeness, you know? Like, “Uhh, your design sucks.” But you don’t want to say that, right? So you have to transcend the fear of being honest and being hurt to get to a better place. It’s not your place, it’s not my place, it’s where we push ourselves. – Rick Valicente

I think you have to broaden your definition of what a designer is. You take information and you tell a story, and you convince an audience that this information is pertinent to them. And hopefully in doing that you don’t go working for cigarette companies, but you work for companies you believe in. I think that’s always been our role. – Michael Vanderbyl

…for me [not researching is] like a chef not caring if the patrons of his restaurant like the food. You want that branding feedback. You want to know how people respond to it, how they relate to it, what they see into it, what they experience; and I think that is really critically important for any design process. – Debbie Millman

There were also bits that stood out to me not in a good way. There were too many references to “normal” people, as part of a “general audience” that felt particularly jarring given the topic of the poster (hand washing = not a specialist activity). The understanding that of of course as a designer you want to avoid the “obvious” thing was also a bit grating, again considering there are times when the obvious thing, well, works.

Most annoying of all was that the experimentation here is entirely in the design of the poster and at no time does anyone suggest to Beard she run an experiment. Sure, she goes to check out different bathrooms as part of her research — but she never counts how many people wash their hands, slaps up a poster, and sees if it actually changes behavior.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Beard does tell us that “the poster wasn’t really about the message. Rather, it serves as a vehicle to look at current approaches in design.” Yet I think this irritates me even more. The idea that many current approaches in design are this removed from real world impact strikes me as a problem, one that designers should be working to overcome. It isn’t that expertise doesn’t have a place, rather that expert opinion is still just that (opinion) and that individual opinion isn’t the best gauge for impact. Why aren’t more luminaries suggesting real world experiments to measure the success of a design — particularly in a case like this one, where the message is tied to a specific and measurable outcome (incidence of hand washing)?

I may be guilty of drinking the minimum viable kool-aid, but this feels like a big miss to me. As the poster went through iteration after iteration, I realized I probably wasn’t going to find out which was the one poster to rule them all, because the purpose remained theoretical: the posters were not coming to a bathroom near anyone, not even as a test to learn about the design.

Still, I did overall enjoy the book. I imagine process nerds will be eager to glean whatever they can from how other folks work, and there are lessons to be learned here about incorporating feedback and balancing ego and idea. Just know there’s more here about executing an idea than implementing for impact.

Maps of the Imagination

Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi The Writer as Cartographer
by Peter Turchi
ISBN: 9781595340054

If I had to boil down the idea of this book to fit in a tweet, it would go something like this: Map makers = “world describers” just like writers.

Saul Steinberg's A View of the World from 9th Avenue

But the fun isn’t in condensing the idea to its smallest coherent piece, but in wandering around and exploring all the places that idea might take you.

Turchi is a good wanderer (and wonderer), taking readers from Chuck Jones’s constraints for the roadrunner cartoon to Saul Steinberg‘s “A View of the World from 9th Avenue” and many other places in between, before and after.

There’s the framework for thinking about mapping:

We stare at our own backyards, hack trails through the rainforest, paddle through overgrown rivers, wade into swamps even as something pulls thickly at our boots. When we reach what feels like a destination, we turn and map the way for others. But will we show them the trail, or force them to negotiate a muddy slope? Will we label the poison ivy, indicate where the river is shallow enough to cross? Or will we add serpents dangling from the trees? We cannot be trusted. We tell our readers, Trust me.

At our best, we don’t make road maps so much as chart the territory, creating the stories of Frolicking Green Water Dragons and lost cities, finding order in the very stars — the uncountable but finite bodies that glimmer above us, always in view, always out of reach. In A Mapmaker’s Dream, Fra Mauro decides the search for the ultimate map ends with the individual. “Wise men contemplate the world, ” he thinks, “knowing full well that they are contemplating themselves.” It maybe folly to image anything more universal, more objective, more true. Each of us stands at one unique spot in the universe, at one moment in the expanse of time, holding a blank sheet of paper.

This is where we begin.

And how it works not just in visual depictions, but in stories:

As writers, we refuse simply to share and thereby reinforce the collective perception; we want to get at something else, something that hasn’t been perceived or hasn’t been presented the way we see it. By asserting our vision, we strive not to impose our view on others, as an act of aggression, but to share it, as an act of generosity. Eudora Welty said that her goal in writing fiction was “not to point the finger in judgement, but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s human plight.” Our interest in maps of places we’ve never been, and may never go, is evidence of our curiosity not only about where others live but about how they live, and how we would live if we were among them. We can never move entirely beyond the limits of our physical confines, or even beyond our perceptions and understanding; but fiction and poetry, in expanding the world of our imagination beyond the world of our experience, allow us a more intimate — and so more thorough, and perhaps more compassionate — imaginative knowledge of our fellow beings than we are likely even to have in the course of our daily lives.

I wasn’t familiar with Welty’s not pointing a finger but parting a curtain, and I love that idea. I think there’s something to “how we would live if we were among them” that spurs emotional investment in the stories we read. Turchi — telling us a story about traveling to Morocco to buy a fez and (and then not buying the fez) — reminds us that, “As travelers through fiction and poetry, we need to distrust the urge to scoop up theme and meaning, as if the things we can neatly pack are necessarily the things we came for.”

I enjoyed reading this book, and recommend it if you have a strong interest in storytelling, or in maps. If you liked Katharine Harmon’sYou Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, you would probably also like this book.

Making Movies

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet by Sidney Lumet
ISBN: 9780679437093

I’m not a movie freak. I enjoy watching movies from time to time, and yes there are different actors or directors or writers I’m more interested in than others, but I didn’t read this book for the movie lore and or even the more technical notes on cameras and lenses. I decided to read it because of Austin Kleon’s blog post about the book. I read it because I’m curious about how people who do creative work get it done, especially over the long haul.

One this score, the book didn’t disappoint. Here’s Lumet talking about his role as director:

I’m in charge of a community that I need desperately and that needs me just as badly. That’s where the joy lies, in the shared experience. Anyone in that community can help me or hurt me. For this reason, it’s vital to have the best creative people in each department. People who can challenge you to work at your best, not in hostility but in a search for the truth.

I realized these ideas don’t just apply to what are traditionally thought of as creative endeavors. I work for a tech company, and I think this attitude could apply equally to product managers working with design, development, and QA making software.

Lumet also has what I thought of as an equivalent to Tim O’Reilly’s work on stuff that matters:

My job is to care about and be responsible for every frame of every movie I make. I know that all over the world there are young people borrowing from relatives and saving their allowances to buy their first cameras and put together their first student movies, some of them dreaming of becoming famous and making a fortune. But a few are dreaming of finding out what matters to them, of saying to themselves and to anyone who will listen, “I care.”

Lumet’s description of a group of people working together who get it, who understand not just the how but the why of the work they are doing boils down to “We’re all making the same movie.”

As the car came over the crest, I saw below me a small, concentrated, white-hot diamond. Everything around it was black except for this beautiful burst of light, where the set was being lit. It’s a sight I’ll always remember: people working so hard, all making the same movie, creating, literally, a picture in the middle of a forest in the middle of the night.

I’m going to use this as metaphor for collaborative work that gets difficult and messy — which is all the best kinds, right?

To Sell is Human

To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink The surprising truth about moving others
by Dan Pink
ISNB: 9781594487156

One issue I have with this genre of book — I’d loosely describe it as occupying the intersection of business and social science, from which one can see self help — is that I find myself wondering if the books should really be books.

I’m not saying the topics aren’t worthy, rather that the execution may be rounding out more pages than necessary because the ideas could be covered in a series of blog posts. I wonder if the desire for the “seriousness” of being a book, and the marketing potential in being a best-selling book (which this will no doubt become) drive the form.

There are interesting and good ideas here. The basic premise is that all of us are in sales — at least, in “non-sales selling” — because we all have a need to convince people to exchange something they have (time, attention, resources) for something we have (an idea, a story, a collaborative effort).

Pink understands that unless you are in sales (and maybe even if you are), sales makes you cringe. So it’s sort of an interesting premise: write a book about something that most people don’t like and think doesn’t apply to them, and convince us all it does apply, isn’t necessarily so bad, and in fact is something we could all be pretty good at if we applied a few not-so-scary-sounding techniques.

Rather than go through the big, catchy ideas (Pink is good at framing — he’s read his Heath brothers) I wanted to share the ideas that stood out to me as useful:

  • Power distorts perspective — the more power you have, the less you tend to see things from another’s perspective
  • Map discussions — I think creating a “a visual representation of who’s talking the most, who’s sitting out, and who’s the target of people’s criticisms” will 1) make some otherwise not so awesome meetings more bearable, and 2) create an artifact to use to help spur changes
  • Recognize that problem-finding is different than problem-solving
  • If you want people to act, you need to provide not just clarity of thought, but a clear path to action
  • Great pitches aren’t supposed to close deals, they are supposed to start real conversations
  • If you have a strong argument, lead with a question: “when people summon their own reasons for believing in something, they endorse that belief more strongly and become more likely to act on it.”
  • Upserve, don’t upsell

So, is it worth reading? Probably. It’s a relatively quick read and there are some good nuggets in there that might change how you see things or cause you to try something new and improve your attempts at persuasion. I didn’t love it. I liked A Whole New Mind much more, but perhaps I’m just overly resistant to selling even though I have no doubt I am in the “people moving” business.

Aldo Rossi: The Sketchbooks

Aldo Rossi: The Sketchbooks by Paulo Portoghesi
ISBN: 0500510202

One of the many pleasures of spending time in libraries is discovering books you weren’t looking for or even knew existed, but apparently needed to read. This book was one of those: I spotted it in the “dump pile”, the area of shelving on each floor where books that have been taken down from the shelves, but aren’t being checked out by the original finder are left.

It drew my eye because it was colorful, and an odd shape for a book — it’s shaped like an artist’s sketchpad, not an architecture book. Architecture is not a subject I know much about, but sketches made this seem friendly, even inviting. The new-to-me ideas I learned about from this book are concept of architecture as “quoting” other buildings or styles. (It made sense to me once I heard it, but hadn’t heard that phrase before — and it was quoting, not copying.) The other idea — the one I am most taken with — is that of “sketching as research”.

Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion
by Alain de Botton
ISBN: 9780307379108

Despite repeatedly coming across his books, until now I haven’t ready any of de Botton’s work. This is probably because I wasn’t really interested in whether or not reading Proust could change my life or what a public intellectual thought of the pleasures and sorrows of work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I figured he was probably something of a snot, and didn’t care to read about his snobbishness at book-length.

This book didn’t disabuse me of my judgmental notions, but the central idea was interesting enough to pick it up anyway. Picking up the conversation after the place where it either grinds to a halt or degenerates into shouting (is religion true or not?), de Botton posits that:

it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and to be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.

If nothing but for the thought exercise, I was interested in his premise. Religions are, after all, enormously successful organizations across geography and time. I suspect de Botton probably irritates nearly as many atheists (with his insistence on secular nourishment for one’s soul) as he does believers (with his repeated use of the word supernatural and his casually dismissive tone). It is hard to imagine the deeply committed on either side of the issue actually reading three hundred pages of discussion as to how religion without gods can save us.

I think de Botton enjoys being provocative, and he is good at it. Some of his proposals make sense (thematic arrangements of museum collections vs medium or art historical periods) and others surely must be made tongue planted firmly in cheek (the college lecture format may deserve the boot, but replacing it with the fiery sermons seems equally ridiculous).

While de Botton does not subscribe to any theistic belief system, he does yearn for community support of the spiritual sort. Apparently, according to de Botton, most atheists go wrong by being too short-sited:

“So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.”

As a thought exercise, the book held my attention through all ten topics de Botton examines: wisdom, community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions. The book also reminds readers that religions don’t have a monopoly on truth, or the only point of view on ethics or morality and atheists aren’t the only folks who engage in critical thinking and problem-solving.

As far as advice goes, well, I didn’t find any particularly compelling stuff here. It isn’t that I reject the notion that I need encouragement, support, or guidance, it’s that I’ve already put into action more direct, pragmatic advice than found here: take what you need and leave the rest.

The Storytelling Animal

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall How Stories Make Us Human

by Jonathan Gottschall
ISBN: 9780547391403

If you are going to write about stories, you should probably be able to tell one. Otherwise, you’ve got a credibility problem. Thankfully, Gottschall can tell stories and doesn’t hesitate to give color to his theories using examples from his own life.

Not that the book is all about him. It’s all about us, and how we are creatures of story. Human minds are wired for story, and this makes it possible for us to be in turn wired by story. Exploring this idea doesn’t destroy the magic — how our brains operate and what we believe is more layered than a trick that loses it’s power when it’s explained, after all. Science isn’t the enemy of story.

Story is a broader concept than at first you might realize. From the thoughts spinning through your head the moment your alarm goes off, to nearly every second of television you watch, to many of the conversations you have, to the shows in your head when you are sleeping — these are all stories. Fiction is “Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication” — there’s even and equation of sorts for stories. (Science is a story, too.)

Knowing something is “just” a story doesn’t change how the brain reacts to it, either: “the emotional brains processes it as real”. If you are thinking emotional brain doesn’t sound scientific, Gottschall is talking to neuroscientists about regions of the brain that show activity during a functional MRI.

Our mind working this way is “a crucial evolutionary adaption” — storytelling provides meaning and creates a coherence in our lives that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Think things are confusing now? Imagine for a moment that there’s no internal narrator in your head, no ability to sequence and relate events to others… doesn’t sound human, does it?

Not that the storytelling mind is perfect, it isn’t. Both in the ways that our minds in general aren’t perfect (we forget things) but in ways that make us susceptible to conspiracy theories. The drive to find meaning is so strong, we have a tendency to create it when it isn’t obvious, or isn’t there. It is in this way that conspiracy theories make sense: they are a “solution” to the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen? It is hard for our brain not to know the answer, and when it doesn’t know, it is prone to make one up or believe a “logical” story that gives us a meaningful answer, so strong is our desire for meaning. It also means that we can lose ourselves in and learn from novels: “Good fiction tells intensely truthful lies.”

Storytelling is then, evolutionarily speaking, a tradeoff worth making. We might believe things that aren’t really true, but on the other hand, stories let us relate our communal experiences over space and time. Our memories are flawed, and our sense of ourselves as protagonist in the drama of our lives further erodes our adherence to literal truth, but these tendencies can still serve a greater good. Memory (which is a story we tell ourselves about the past) has a purpose: “to allow us to live better lives.” That we have the ability to forget or to reframe events isn’t a flaw, it is by design — one that lets us keep telling the story of our lives in ways that lets us grow and change.

We do seem to have some kind of need for redemption stories, don’t we?

I highly recommend this book. If you ever wondered why stories have such power, reading this book is a good place to begin your exploration of the answer.

Little Bets

Little Bets by Peter Sims How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries by Peter Sims
ISBN: 9781439170427

In this book Sims tries to get people comfortable with uncertainty, particularly the uncertainty around business decisions involving new product development. He quotes a major player in the space (Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder) early on to help establish credibility for his arguments: “You can’t put into a spreadsheet how people are going to behave around a new product”.

Experimental innovators — like Bezos — “do things to discover what they should do” instead of developing painstakingly detailed master plans. It isn’t that detailed master plans never work. When “much is known, procedural planning approaches work perfectly well” Sims tells us, it’s when they are unknown that they don’t work. (One problem I see is that companies like to think they know more than they do — so people rely on master plans that are but illusions of certainty.)

So what are little bets? They are “concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable”. If this sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve been reading Eric Ries’s Lean Startup stuff. Little bets are experiments that can fuel progress through the learn, build, measure loop: placing little bets is the minimum viable mindset in action.

It’s that simple, but placing little bets isn’t necessarily easy. We’ve got human nature to contend with, and we aren’t always as mentally flexible as it would be good for us to be:

By expecting to get things right at the start, we block ourselves psychologically and choke off a host opportunities to learn. In placing so much emphasis on minimizing errors or the risk of any kind of failure, we shut off chances to identify the insights that drive creative progress. Becoming more comfortable with failure, and coming to view false starts and mistakes as opportunities opens us up creatively.

Levels of resilience vary widely, but the good news is we have the ability to change our mindset and develop greater tolerance for failure. It might not sound possible to change a fixed mindset to a become more of a growth mindset, but it is. (Sims cites Carol Dweck’s work on mindset for this.)

Experiments flex growth mindset muscles. They encourage us to focus on what we can learn, rather than what we might lose. Pixar’s creative process (“going from suck to nonsuck”) is a growth mindset in action, as they iterate from sketchy storyboards to brilliance. The important point being, they don’t start at brilliance, it takes a lot of work to get there.

Pixar wouldn’t even be here if Steve Jobs didn’t have a growth mindset. Instead of focussing on what he expected to gain from Pixar’s animation division, he continually made investments in the company that were about what he could afford to lose. (If this sounds like a no-brainer, remember the Pixar you know isn’t primarily the hardware company Jobs originally bought.) It wasn’t one giant bet that created the Pixar we know today, but several small wins that resulted from little bets.

Invention and discovery emanate from being able to try seemingly wild possibilities and work in the unknown; to be comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a keen observer, with an openness to experiences and ideas; to play with ideas without censoring oneself or others; to persist through dark valleys with a growth mind-set; to improvise ideas in collaboration and conversation with others; and, to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods of time, despite conventional wisdom.

Perhaps best part, if you aren’t there in your thinking right now, is that you don’t have to change everything at once. Start small, pick one thing — one experiment that might create some fear or uncertainty, and do it anyway, just to see. Something small enough you can focus on the afford to lose part… there’s so much to gain if you do.